Speaking With Kenneth Branagh, Director of 'Thor'

San Francisco Chronicle, 29 April 2011
By Michael Ordoņa

"You find me in a rather strange, futuristic hotel room in Dubai International Airport," says "Thor" director Kenneth Branagh in dulcet tones unchilled by a long-distance connection. "I'm going to Sydney now for the very first of the openings in Australia. ... I think Sydney is going to be invaded by all branches of the Hemsworth clan. (Star Chris Hemsworth) says anybody he ever knew has called and said they're coming."

If the director seems jolly, he may have reason to be: His first venture into superherodom is getting positive buzz as it gears up for its American premiere Friday. It's a big-budget, effects-rich, 3-D spectacle about an arrogant Norse god (Hemsworth) who is stripped of his powers and banished to Earth by his father, Odin, king of the gods (Anthony Hopkins). Complicating his quest for redemption are beautiful human scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), wicked adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and a giant, mystical armored weapon with a habit of destroying lots of things.

Amazing adventure

"At 47, I thought, what an amazing adventure it would be to attempt a big, popular entertainment piece," says Branagh, now 50, confessing vivid childhood memories of the Marvel comic book. "You have to go on such a steep learning curve because the technology is changing on an almost-daily basis. In terms of the visual possibilities, it's really only limited by your imagination. So all of that was exciting and I thought, I hope that maybe the central part of it, the relationships in this epic story, would be something I could bring something different to."

Although the stigma that once surrounded comic-book movies has been crushed by the gravitas of such recent participants as Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ian McKellen and many others, celebrated Shakespeare interpreter Branagh was probably not the first name that came to fanboys' minds for "Thor." After all, his heretofore top grosser stateside is "Dead Again," with $38 million, though "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" collected $112 million worldwide. The expectations attached to a property with a rabid fan base and a budget reported at $150 million had to be different from those he'd faced in, say, turning "Love's Labour's Lost" into a Hollywood musical. "I was working with Marvel, who are self-confessed geeks or fanboys; they have an encyclopedic knowledge of this material. So they're the ones who have an ear closer to the ground than I do, to the detail of fans' reactions. If I were to listen to all of it, I'd have to make 1,000 different films for all the points of view. I don't see it as pressure. If lots of people turn out to be very interested in how this movie turns out, frankly," he says, laughing, "that's rare in my experience."

A collaboration

The filmmaker enthusiastically collaborated with his visual-effects team and second-unit director Vic Armstrong (a veteran of the Indiana Jones and James Bond movies and Branagh's "Henry V") without abdicating the throne: "Although the logistics sometimes tempt you to carve it up a little, you end up wanting to have a very personal hand in it or it doesn't have what I think films like this really benefit from, which is a personal point of view ... a real inflection of the story, which has to do with action as well as the acting." When he got started on the project, however, producer Kevin Feige didn't want his top priority to be crash courses in VFX or 3-D: "He said, 'Just cast Thor. That's the only thing that matters. If we don't get it right, all the rest of it's over anyway.' "

Hemsworth, an Aussie soap star known to American audiences as Capt. Kirk's dad in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," flat-out looks like a Norse god of thunder.

"He has a great frame," Branagh says. Or, as the Hollywood Reporter put it, "Verily, he is ripped." But Branagh - and early reviewers - say Viking swagger isn't the only hammer in his toolbox.

"When we see him begin a fight in the first act, his eyes light up and you see this unthinking relish for violence that is Thor's strength and weakness," the director says. "Without giving it away, there's a lovely moment in a pet shop which is just the mark of a true comedian. And there's a scene with Natalie Portman's character when he explains to her where he's from. It's stripped of the arrogance of the first moment; it doesn't have any of the conscious humor of the other moment, and it's so simple, naked, vulnerable, straight-through honest. With an actor of range, who also fulfills all the physical requirements of the piece, you get an extra dimension ... a chance for an actor to take the character on a genuine journey."Despite all the space travel and magical realms, it's not a journey entirely alien to the genre-rookie director.

Shakespeare connection

"In a strange way, I sometimes felt I was remaking 'Henry V,' " Branagh says of the story's backbone of a wild young son disappointing his regal father, with "Prince Hal and his father, Henry IV, and a literal steal from Marvel, who made Falstaff from those earlier plays Volstagg in the Marvel universe.

"Shakespeare was already using the coming-of-age story, the prodigal son story, to allow an audience to identify with any young man's ritualistic conflict with parents or siblings as he tries to work out who he is. When it's a family with responsibility, in this case for the entire universe, the stakes are so high that, in a way, if it works, it can be very exciting and very cathartic. It's easy to get wrong, but it's thrilling if you think you have a chance of getting it right."

Thor (rated PG-13) opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

Thor Odinson

Born: August 1962 in "Journey Into Mystery" No. 83 - or in the unfathomable mists of time beyond time (a cave in Norway, Midgard - raised in Asgard). Yes, nerds, there was a Thor who appeared in Venus No. 12 (1951), but he bears little connection to this one.

Personal: "The Mighty Thor" is a Marvel comic based on the Norse God of Thunder. "Asgard" is a magical realm populated by ancient beings of staggering power. Thor's dad is Odin, former Sky Father and monarch of Asgard (according to Marvel.com). Brother (adoptive): Loki, the evil God of Mischief. Lady love: In the original comic run, lovely earthbound nurse Jane Foster; later, the lovely Asgardian warrior woman Sif; later still, in the film, Jane Foster again - but now a lovely astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman. As to his "other" family, the comic character was created by mighty Marvel mythmasters Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with Lee's brother Larry Lieber scripting Thor's first appearance in "Journey into Mystery" (later "The Mighty Thor").

Why we care: Is a fixture in the firmament of the Marvel Universe, a founding member of the Avengers and cornerstone character of the Silver Age of comic books. He's sort of Marvel's answer to DC's godlike Superman, but an actual god. He also got weirder with space-, time- and mind-bending adventures into the realm of the mystic- all the while keeping one eye on his home away from home, Earth. Thor is the master of lightning, rain, snow and other things that can ruin a picnic.

Resume builders: There have been upward of 600 issues of Thor's solo comics, whether called "Journey into Mystery," "The Mighty Thor," or what have you. He has made hundreds of appearances in other titles, including "The Avengers." "Avengers" No. 1, in which Thor first teams up with Iron Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man and Wasp, is worth more than $9,000 at Comic Book Realm, which also prices a Gem Mint copy of "Journey Into Mystery" No. 83 at $36,000.

Quotable: Thor does not struggle with low self-esteem: "Thou didst not reckon with the might of Thor, knave!" (Avengers No. 159); "Stay thy hand! 'Tis the God of Thunder who doth command thee!" (Fantastic Four No. 73).

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